Parker, my east coast security personal, curls his hand around the doorknob of a suite in a private hospital on the outskirts of Nevada. He’s uneased about my request but aware nothing will adjourn it, so he stopped objecting five miles from the remote airstrip I arrived at over an hour ago. “The nurses have her heavily sedated. She may not be responsive.”
I jerk up my chin, advising I understand what I’m walking toward, before nudging my head to the door, requesting for him to open it. The longer he delays this, the more chance my visit will be witnessed by someone who could detrimentally affect my empire. Since it is already racing toward an industry I never wanted it cloaked by, this needs to be a quick visit.
When Parker slings open the door, I almost strangle the fluffy rabbit I’m clutching. Callie’s injuries aren’t superficial. Her leg is in plaster, most of her hair is covered by a bandage, and her face is mottled with bruises.
I don’t care what her medical records state, she did not fall down a set of stairs. The marks on her face are similar to the injuries CJ Petretti suffered when I was forced to fight him or lose Ophelia forever. She was beaten, and if my intuition is anything to go by, I know who her culprit is. Unlike Henry, Vladimir rules with cruel, undermining tactics. He doesn’t just loathe his daughters, though. His sons are the bane of his existence as well.
I lift my chin when Parker mutters, “I’ll keep watch.”
Since he has the stagger of a police officer, our arrival was only eyeballed by two security guards in the foyer. They didn’t approach us to identify if the Glock Parker is carrying is registered. With Hunter taking care of surveillance, my visit will only be documented in person. There is no flight manifest to scrutinize, and no hotel room receipts. As far as anyone is concerned, Isaac Holt is in heavy negotiations with a landowner in Miami.
The churns of my stomach ramp up when my entrance into Callie’s room is done without scrutiny. There’s no crying mother at her side, nor are any of her siblings maintaining a bedside vigil. She’s alone, fighting the world, and she isn’t even three yet. Her birthday is a little over two months away.
Callie whimpers in her sleep when I tuck the bunny I brought her into her side before pulling up the bedding. She has Isabelle’s dark hair but hers is a little lighter, the hours she clearly spends in the sun both darkening her skin and highlighting her hair.
When I pull strands of mousy brown hair away from her face, my heart beats out a funky tune. There’s a ring imprint on her right cheek. It’s from a family crest, but it isn’t the one I was anticipating. Although the P could be mistaken for Popov, there’s only one family who wears their emblem on custom jewelry pieces. The Petrettis.
As my mind scrambles to work out how the Petrettis are linked to this, I yank my cell phone out of my pocket. It isn’t my everyday one. It’s the one I use when I don’t want my movements traced.
Hunter answers two rings later. “Boss.”
“I need you to contact Jae…”
I pause when he says my name. It’s more fretful this time around than helpful. “Your registration as a bidder is already causing a stir, so bringing in an outsider could double the whispers.” I hear his fingers work his keyboard a million miles an hour. “The pediatric doctor at Callie’s hospital comes highly recommended. The board at Ravenshoe Private has been endeavoring to secure her for years.”
His commentary loosens the knot in my stomach, but it doesn’t entirely remove it. “I want someone here I trust.”
“Even if it doubles the asking price?”
“Yes,” I reply through a tight jaw, unappreciative of his bartering. He needs to remember he works for me, not the other way around. I made many decisions for my empire long before he became a part of my team, and I will continue making them until I take my final breath. “The auction estimate increased from two hundred thousand to half a million when my registration was approved.”
I hear Hunter scrub at his beard as he says, “Because they want what you want.”
“Precisely. And that is why I can’t let them win. If I fail once, all my successes will be overlooked.”
“Isaac…” He pauses, breathes heavily out of his nose, then tries again. “I get where you’re coming from, I read the medical reports, it makes me sick to my fucking stomach, but if you show too much interest in this case, not only will Vladimir push the reserve through the roof, he will want to know why you’re obsessed with this one auction item.”
He huffs like I’m being unreasonable when I reply, “That won’t happen if we maintain a rational thought process.” I lower my voice when my deep timbre causes Callie to stir. “These men are not smart, Hunter. It doesn’t take a brilliant mind to profit from drugs, the prostitution conglomerate, or child trafficking. We can outsmart them. I just need you to focus on Callie instead of me. I can take care of myself.”
He waits a beat before the whoosh of his head bob sounds down the line. “This won’t be the first time we will send Jae on an interstate recruitment drive. Don’t see it being the last.” My thankful smirk stays on my face for barely a second before he switches it out for a snarl. “While we wait for the good doctor to arrive, we need to lay out traps to ensure your tracks aren’t found. Hernandez won’t budge from his thirteen point four million dollar asking price…” His delay both frustrates and excites me. Hunter only ever brings out the dramatics when he has a big fish on the hook. “But he’s willing to throw in a hamlet in Paris or an unknown dance club ten miles out from the Las Vegas strip. It is a money pit, but it presents the perfect excuse for you to spend a couple of days in Nevada.”
My piqued interests are heard in my tone. “How soon can he process the sale?”
“For cash, we could close within a week.”
I stray my eyes back to Callie, confident about what needs to be done, and happy to take a loss for it to occur. “Have Regan forward me the sale contract. I’ll have it signed and endorsed by close of business today.” I stop Hunter from disconnecting our call by shouting his name when he hums in agreement. “Process the sale under a corporate entity but ensure the right people know who the true purchaser is. If Vladimir questions my interest, we could excuse an infatuation with Vegas royalty for it. There’s no better way to disarm a mobster than to stroke his ego.”
Hunter’s laugh is interrupted by Parker knocking on the door. Only his head pops into Callie’s room when I signal for him to enter.
“We have a situation.” He nudges his head to the corridor, requesting for us to talk outside of Callie’s room.
Although she appears fast asleep, I understand Parker’s objective. I learned about Nicholas being conceived in a test tube to save my life and the consequences it caused my parents’ marriage from the times I pretended to be asleep during my numerous hospital stays. Because I was unaware at the time my mother valued possessions more than she did her family, I kept quiet on the other things I discovered until it was too late for my father. He could have known about her affair with a plastic surgeon years earlier if I hadn’t believed in fairytales.
“What is it?” I ask Parker when he fidgets on the spot like a schoolgirl spotting her idol. The last time I saw him fiddle this much was when I scribbled his yearly salary onto a piece of paper. He’s usually a reserved man, but not even a trust-fund baby can act nonchalant when they see how well I pay my staff.
Although my comment was about a schoolgirl, I realize I’m not far off the mark when Parker says, “I just got word Callie’s mother’s body has been found.” The way he articulates himself leaves no doubt she isn’t alive, but I am surprised by what he says next. “Although her body had several ligature marks, bruises, and she was badly malnourished, the coroner has ruled that her death is not suspicious.”
“How can that be?” I scoff out, truly shocked. “You don’t need a deadly weapon to kill somebody.” Sometimes you just need your fists.
I feel like I’m sucker punched when Parker replies, “Reports state Callie’s injuries were inflicted by her mother. She tried to kill her daughter before she killed herself.” Anger sees me working my jaw side to side when he adds, “Sonya tried to drown Callie in the bathtub.” I don’t know whether to be grateful or angry when he murmurs, “Callie knew all too well from the environment she grew up in that playing dead was sometimes the only way to survive.” He motions his head to Callie, who briskly shuts her eyes when she spots my gawk. “Her injuries are from a john unappreciative of her taking out his favorite whore.”
Parker slants his head to the side and arches a brow when I ask, “Col Petretti?”
After a prolonged bout of silence, he lifts his chin. “How did you know that?”
“The main bruise on Callie’s cheek has a P embedded in it.”
Oblivious to the fact I’m aware of what the Petretti’s emblem entails, Parker brings it up on the screen of his cell phone. “Was it this?” A low groan vibrates in his chest when I bob my chin. “This could make things very complicated.”
“How?” I ask, confused. Col has done far worse than backhanding a child, and most of the atrocious acts were done to his blood, so this should barely create a ripple in the ocean.
The situation goes from bad to worse when Parker discloses, “There have been rumors circulating the past couple of months about the death of Vladimir’s favorite whore.”
“The woman who birthed his eldest son?” Unlike most of Vladimir’s sons, the face of the Popov heir isn’t flashed across the papers every week. He doesn’t host parties for celebrities, nor does he exploit his underworld association across the globe for the world to see. Bar the occasional mention of his name by associates hoping to claw their nails into my empire they wrongly believe was founded by similar theatrics, I could forget he exists.
Parker nods. “For years, it was believed she died of a drug overdose, but the longer tension brewed between Cartel entities, the more farfetched the claims became. They extend from Felicia being an undercover operative who ‘died’ so they could get her out, to her being murdered by a rival associate.”
Although I can see how this could complicate things, I’m not sure what it has to do with Callie.
When I say that to Parker, he states, “The rival associate is rumored to be Col Petretti.” He locks his almost black eyes with mine. “So, if you’re putting Col into the same room as another death of Vladimir’s favorite whore, those rumors will jump from a flicker to a flame.”
“And Callie could get caught in the blaze.”
“Yes,” Parker answers, unaware I wasn’t asking a question. “Because just like one lie undoes a thousand truths, one wrong DNA test could undo centuries of traditions. This isn’t the first time a Popov’s lineage has been questioned, but it is the first time a possible discretion is being auctioned.”
What is he saying?
He can’t possibly be hinting that the Popov ancestry isn’t as affluent as perceived. Entities like theirs are built from ancestry-based traditions. One fault in their pedigree line could unravel their entire operation.
It dawns on me that my theories are on the money when Parker says, “If Callie’s lineage is discredited, it will place the entire Popov legacy on the line.”
“Then it’s lucky we don’t have to worry about that, isn’t it?” I question, unfearful of the outcome of a DNA test.
Callie was identified by Hugo so quickly because of the depth and darkness of her eyes. All Vladimir’s children’s eyes have the same markings. They’re scorched from the hell they were born in but since they were plucked from the danger before they were fully charred, they are dark brown instead of black.
There’s only one Popov child with dissimilar eyes to his siblings. He’s making his way down the corridor now, hence the reason my cell phone is going crazy in my pocket. Now Hunter will be on my back even more about wearing a listening device for every waking minute of the day.
I pluck Callie’s medical chart from the holder outside her door before shifting on my feet to face Parker. “Order additional scans. We need to make sure the rattle in her chest has nothing to do with excess water on her lungs.”
When he reads my underhanded warning that we’re being approached, his hand slips toward his gun. I inconspicuously shake my head. For one, I’m unsure yet if Nikolai is the enemy or an ally, and two, it’s rare to see him without a fanfare. There is no crew flanking his walk. No hired goons beefing up his presence. He doesn’t even have one of the many women he’s been photographed with the past year on his arm. He’s here, alone, which has me wondering how sinister his arrival is.
Nikolai’s icy blue eyes drift to mine when we bypass each other two doors down from Callie’s room. His narrowed gaze is slanted with suspicion, but I don’t miss their quick drag down my body. I’m wearing a suit not even the world’s number one plastic surgeon could afford.
Fortunately for me, a man in ripped jeans and a plain black tee wouldn’t know the difference between a rack-purchased suit and one sewn by the tailor who dresses the royal family.
That doesn’t mean I’m let off scot-free though.
I curse under my breath when Nikolai winks at me before he hides his smug grin by angling his head. He knows I know who he is, and he’s milking it for all its worth. Showboating is very much one of his exasperating talents.
The cockiness beaming out of him is suffocated when he pops open the door of Callie’s hospital room. He stands in the doorway for several long seconds, unmoving and unspeaking. Just when I think the vein in his neck is about to pop in protest to the frantic throbs of his heart, he enters Callie’s room, closing the door behind him.
When he commences rolling down the privacy blinds, I sling my eyes to Parker. “What are the chances he’s here to finish the job?” He looks confused until I disclose. “Nikolai has blue eyes. The same blue eyes every member of the Petretti family has.”
I see his pupils dilate when the truth smacks into him.
The rumors he’s heard aren’t rumors. Mafia lines have been blurred, and decades ago by the looks of it.
Before I can command otherwise, Parker removes his gun and military walks the eight steps between where we’re standing and Callie’s door. He gets as far as bracing his gun in the perfect position to fire before I order for him to wait with a swift movement of my hand. While he stands outside Callie’s door with his gun drawn and his heart racing, I dial a frequently dialed number on my untraceable cell before squashing it to my ear.
“Logging in now,” Hunter advises, aware I am unable to talk due to my close proximity to Callie’s room.
As his fingers race over his keyboard, I pull my iPhone out of my pocket and fire up the screen. I’ve barely secured an entire breath when Hunter finds a way to display what is happening inside Callie’s room without Parker entering with guns blazing. The angle is odd. I’m watching the event unfold more from Callie’s angle than Nikolai’s, but it leaves no uncertainty things aren’t as sinister as anticipated. He doesn’t end her life with the pillow her head is resting on, nor does he rip away the bunny she’s snuggling. He adjusts her pillow so her neck isn’t kinked before he pulls back the same strand of hair I did earlier.
It only takes Nikolai half a second to find the P-marked bruise on her cheek. It doubles the murderous glint in his eyes and sees him spinning on his heels to race for the door. Parker and I are given the chance to conceal ourselves when he freezes partway across her room. He remains still like he did earlier, but instead of his eyes being locked on Callie, they’re staring at nothing, deep in thought.
It feels like minutes pass before he spins back around to face Callie. He drifts his eyes over her bruised face for a couple of seconds before he returns to her side of the bed. I watch him like a hawk, when he plucks the bunny I brought Callie out of her clutch. He trails his eyes over the velvet material, seeking a tag. He won’t find one. They’re the stuffed animals Katarina designed and I ordered for the children who reside at Nobel Wellness.
Very rarely do children removed from abusive homes have more than the clothes on their back. A stuffed rabbit, teddy bear, or friendly rhinoceros won’t alter what they’ve been through, but more times than not, all most children want is comfort. You’ll never understand the true effects of affection until you give it to someone who has been mistreated more than they’ve been cherished.
With that in mind, the first thing I do when Nikolai leaves without the bunny he took a million pictures of is lay my index finger in the middle of Callie’s tiny palm.
The first day, she keeps her hand as flat as a sheet of paper.
The second day, she curls the end of her fingers ever so slightly.
By day three, she clutches my finger so firmly, anyone would swear my return to Florida today will hurt her as much as it will me.
There have been too many close calls for me to stay, and as much as I wish I could simply pick Callie up and take her home with me, that’s far from feasible. For a man who has always believed hard work is the solution for everything, the rules mafia sanctions are governed by are infuriatingly frustrating. Not even Henry Snr., the top tier when it comes to cartel entities, can alleviate my annoyance.
If I want to thrust my empire under a spotlight I never wanted it highlighted by, I must adhere to the rules. That’s no easy feat for a man as controlling as me, but once again, the matter has been taken out of my hands, and once again, it is all Isabelle’s fault.